Author: Clio Lieberman

Change as Positivity

To quote Lauren Olamina from Parable of the Sower, another Octavia Butler novel, “God is Change.”

Since change is inevitable—nothing is stagnant forever—it can be troubling to grapple with and can be extremely frightening. On the flip side, however, change can be positive and comforting. This can be seen through the character of Aaor in Imago when it is as close as construct possible to suicide, meaning that it might dissolve completely. Aaor’s physical body is responding to its mental state—with no possibility of finding human mates, Aaor is out of options and opportunity to thrive. It “almost lost itself” and even “suppressed its scent” (Butler 675), which are mental and physical indicators of its state of emergency. Even when Nikanj brings it “almost back to normal,” it has “no control left” and “drifts toward a less complex form” (681).  This can be attributed to not having an opportunity for a change in its life, since it is “deeply, painfully afraid, desperately lonely and hungry for a touch it could not have” (681).

When Aaor meets Jodahs’ mates, laying with them and Jodahs helps bring it back to its original form. Even with the hard work Jodahs, Tomás, and Jesusa do, once they break apart Aaor’s body starts to deteriorate again. Only when Aaor has the possibility of finding human mates does it start to hold its structure and keep itself together. In its narration, Jodahs reveals that it “suspected [Aaor] was surviving now only because of our combined efforts and its new hope of Human mates to bond with” (Butler 691), again showing that the hope for change is positive. Once Aaor finds mates, it “looked better than it had since its first metamorphosis. It looked stable and secure in itself. It looked satisfied” (712), which lends to change as positivity and the opportunity for a better life.

When one lacks the ability to change their situation, that is when desperation sets in. I am very much reminded of this when watching prison documentaries. In high maximum security jail cells, where inmates are locked up for twenty-three hours a day, if they have no opportunity to change their situation or privileges they will act out and often cause themselves physical harm. When given the opportunity to gain back some privileges, the inmates are often kinder to themselves and their mental states seem to be more stable. In extreme environments, the opportunity for change can mean the difference between life and death, or life and suffering.

Broad City and Butler

Ilana: “You wanna talk nasty seafood? I read a thing on Buzzfeed that said there’s microscopic shrimp in all of New York City’s drinking water.”

Bobbi: “What?”

Ilana: “Copepods, they’re called.”

Bobbi: “No!”

Ilana: “Yeah, Google it. We have shrimp inside of us at all times, which I’m okay with, sounds delicious. But it’s like, ask me first?”

According to the NYT article, there are 100 trillion bacteria on each person’s skin, and the Medical News Today article claims we have up to two kilograms of bacteria in our guts. The NYT article also says that we are only 10% human, meaning that for every human cell we have there are 10 microorganisms, and 99% of the genetic material inside our bodies are from said microorganisms.

In the excerpt from Broad City, we see pop culture evidence of non-consent in microorganisms inhabiting our bodies. We do not initially consent to these beings living in our bodies, but this occurs anyway. Only through scientific research do we even learn about this, which brings up questions of epistemic privilege and the divide between the conscious/subconscious brain.

The more I learn the more I find myself struggling to grapple with questions of inherent non-consent in our everyday lives, and to some extent non-consent that lives in the divide in the brain. To be honest, this is hard for me to describe in words. We don’t know what’s going on in our own bodies at all, but our subconscious brain/body responds to stimuli without our conscious brain knowing about it. Here is where epistemic privilege comes into play as well: those who are well-versed in biology (doctors, researchers, etc.) know more about violence inflicted upon the body than the average lay person.

Sickness, in this respect, is also violence enacted upon the body in biological, socioeconomic, and cultural strains. Structural/institutional violence against the body is evident in the American healthcare system in which people who cannot afford healthcare/treatment often go untreated and eventually will die (another pop cultural reference: Breaking Bad). Culturally, some people may be shunned for having diseases, especially if they are part of a marginalized group to begin with (HIV/AIDS epidemic, violence against queer (and especially queer POC) bodies).

Butler’s fiction forces me to become cognizant of these issues of everyday violence, and beckons questions of how truly autonomous and “free” we really are. In this respect, I find myself thinking a lot about choosing what is “right,” meaning what I should do, not what I can do.


Inherent Societal Non-Consent and Identity

The social contract we, as humans born into a Lockean society, live through is inherently non-consensual. Before birth, society has already established this social contract that we do not agree to until we become cognizant of said social contract—for some, this may be in high school and for others college. The assumption I just made was also made through a privileged power structure—there are many people living in our society today that have not attended high school or have had a formal secondary where they would have come in contact with the social contract—and they may not be educated on theories by Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, or other “Enlightenment” thinkers. I put “Enlightenment” in quotes because many of those authors may not explicitly outline the non-consent in their theories—what are they actually enlightening for us? Regardless of this, we are not consenting to live under this social contract until we are old enough to understand it, and by then I think for many of us (at least for me, when I first encountered this in high school) the social contract is taught as a fact/founding principle of this country that we just accept. There is a compulsory agreeance in the non-consensual social contract. Personally, this comes across to me as propaganda—we are led to blindly elevate the social contract as the ultimate form of democracy—and have even fought wars and instilled political figures to further our own “democratic” political agenda.

In the handout from class today (October 16th) the section on Rousseau reads “[s]ome human beings come to dominate others, denying them the equality they enjoyed in the state of nature” (Mills) (emphasis is mine). This brought questions to my mind of language and power structures. Are we separated from animals (and the state of nature) by our ability to use complex language? In our current state, we cannot exist in a system outside of language, and even in theoretical arguments about such we still use language to construct them. Language and power structures/inequalities play on each other and are deeply intertwined—by nature itself, the power structures we spout everyday would then be nonconsensual as well, because we use coded language without explicitly being cognizant or agreeing to these power structures.

My point in saying this is that all of the things we are born into, socialized to believe/perform, etc.—all are non-consensual. There is compulsory masculinity and femininity, compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory ethnic and race identity, compulsory gender identity, compulsory class, etc. This is not to say that we can’t push back against this, and this is perhaps what Butler is getting at. Maybe Butler is trying to show us the inevitability of non-consent in the society we live in today, but in a more idealized society, we might not have to be born into all of this non-consent. That being said, being born in and of itself is inherently non-consensual, and language itself, the tool we use for communication, is rife with inequalities. Maybe the point is that we can’t completely free ourselves from non-consent, but we can do our best to mitigate it.